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The Caretaker

by Robert Mullen


Everything was new to me: the city of Lugo with its Roman wall, the coach journey from Lugo to the nearby market town of Friol, the rural taxi which then took me to the small Galician village of Santiago de Miraz. I was set down with my rucksack at the casa rectoral. Formerly the priest’s house, this was now an albergue, a pilgrim refuge on the Camino del Norte, and, for me, my home for the next three months.

A white van was parked outside, and from within came the sound of an electric drill. A new bathroom was being installed inside, and there was dust everywhere. There were holes in the walls, there were exposed wires. Wherever I looked I saw a job that had been begun but not finished.

I presented myself to Luis, the man at work there, and asked how things were going.

Sin problemas,” he replied.

Luis was the entire work force. He was a plumber as well as an electrician, a man of many skills but few words. As there were no immediate problems to deal with, I dropped my rucksack and went in search of a woman whom I had been told would be helpful to me. Pilar was the dueña of the only commercial establishment in the village, the Bar Miraz. She was a short, stout woman, one clearly accustomed to being in charge, and she commenced her first lesson at once, speaking slowly to make sure that I was following. The bread van came by six days a week, the grocery van twice a week, the fishmonger’s van only once, on Thursday afternoons.

“You’ll get used to it,” she added. “Just be sure to listen for their horns.”

A card game was in progress at one of the tables behind me. The preferred language in the village was Gallego, of which I knew not a word, but it was clear that a card game here was no mere pastime. Partners corrected each other’s play with angry shouts and threatening gestures, and at the end of play one pair celebrated loudly while the other went sheepishly up to the counter to settle with Pilar for their drinks.

Quien pierda, paga,” Pilar explained with a solemnity which suggested that this was no less than a fundamental principle of the universe. The loser pays.

The year before, at the age of sixty, I had walked the Camino Francés, the thousand year old pilgrim route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, at the foot of the Pyrenees, to the city of Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. Walking those five hundred miles as a pilgrim, alone among strangers and with no more of my belongings than I could carry on my back, had affected me deeply, but in ways which I had not yet fully understood.

As I walked, I had collected stories. In the past the stories would have been largely of the many miracles worked by the Apostle, Saint James, whose remains were believed to be in Compostela, but times had changed. Today, amongst post-modern pilgrims, the agent of the miracles worked on the Camino was the Camino itself.

The Camino finds you out. The Camino will provide what you need. The Camino will heal you if you let it. The Camino is a drug, the Camino hooks you. And most intriguing of all, the true Camino begins only when you reach the end.

I had not made the Camino in order to write about it, but I had kept careful notes. Soon after my return from Spain I turned these notes into an article for a pilgrim magazine, but the only conclusion I was able to reach was the obvious one – that after six weeks of living the pilgrim life I had returned to “real life” and was back walking the streets of Edinburgh.

There were as yet no pilgrims to look after as the albergue was to remain closed until the works had been completed. I nevertheless rose early each morning, took out the ashes from the stove, lit a new fire, and then sat down beside the stove with a cup of coffee to watch from the kitchen window as the sun rose through the branches of an ancient apple tree.

I listened intently for the shrill horn which would indicate that the bakery van had arrived. The lady in the van, spotting a new face, demanded to know who I was and why I was there.

“Last year I walked across Spain as a pilgrim,” I explained. “Afterwards, when I returned home, I no longer knew what to do with myself.”

Some months after my pilgrimage, in the newsletter of the pilgrim association to which I belonged, the following notice had appeared: “Caretaker Required for Winter Months in Miraz.” The applicant would require a working knowledge of Spanish, as well as being self-sufficient, resourceful, good with his hands, and able to cope with a traditional Galician wood stove.

“So here you are.”

“So here I am.”

Satisfied now that it was worth her while to do so, the panadera picked up, in turn, each of the variously shaped loaves of bread in her van and made me repeat after her the names by which I was, in the future, to ask for them.

“Just so that you won’t appear ignorant,” she said with a smile.

There was no time to become bored. The surrounding fields and forest were crisscrossed with trails to explore; there were countless streams in the area, and a sometimes raging river with a path worn along its bank by hunters and fishermen. And someone would always have spotted me on my wanderings and would later have passed this information on to Pilar.

“So you were at the cattle ford today,” she remarked one evening when I turned up in the bar for a tinto.

“Was I? How do you know?”

“Because even the trees here have eyes.”

I mentioned to her that I had discovered a small mill near the ford, one seemingly still in working order. This was nothing surprising, she told me, as there were many such abandoned mills about. I asked her where they were, but she merely shrugged. Everywhere.

“Look for them and you’ll find them.”

This was Galicia. People here played their cards close to their chests. They had their secrets, which they guarded. They gave a little, at times they gave a great deal, but they seldom if ever gave away everything.

I met Jesús for the first time outside the village church. He was the verger, he opened the church for mass, and he rang its bell to summon the faithful. He was either a little under or a little over ninety years old, depending on whom you asked, but he could still be heard in the mornings splitting his own firewood.

Not long after the mass he appeared at the albergue with a gift of some eggs and a bottle of wine of dubious provenance. The bottle had no label, and the cork had been inserted by hand. He asked me to return the bottle to him afterwards, along with any other empties that I accumulated, and not to mention this to anyone else.

He himself no longer drank alcohol, he indicated, as he was on medication for a chest complaint, but he agreed to my making him a café con leche.

“And some biscuits with it?”

¡Hombre!” he exclaimed.

He supervised my preparations. He was no longer supposed to drink café con leche either, only leche con café, which was to say, a glass of warm milk with only the faintest lacing of coffee. All the same, he gave me to understand, anything was better than nothing at his age, anything into which it was possible to dunk biscuits.

A dog shyly approached me one morning as I was splitting wood outside the refuge. I recognized it as the Alsatian that lived in the back room of the bar. His name was Rocky, and like me he was an outsider. He had shown up in the village some years previously, perhaps having arrived with a pilgrim, and since then had been taken under her wing by Pilar.

We eyed each other. I guessed that he was asking me, with his movements, if I fancied a walk. He was quite an old dog, and suffered from cataracts, but upon seeing me put down the axe and remove my gloves, he was at once miraculously rejuvenated and began to leap about with joy.

From that moment, we became the best of friends. Rocky disliked the rain, preferring to remain indoors on wet mornings, but every other morning, as soon as Pilar opened the bar, he was out of the door and making a beeline for the refuge, wagging his tail in expectation.

¿Ya está listo, jefe?” Are you ready yet, boss?

The clearest mornings were also the coldest, and the ground would still be white with frost. Sooner or later we would end up at a stream or the river, and Rocky, whatever the temperature, would slip in for a swim.

“Strange,” I remarked to Pilar. “He doesn’t like rain, but he certainly does love water.”

“And you always bring him back soaking wet,” Pilar complained, “and he stinks when he’s wet. Why don’t you take some soap with you?”

It was my responsibility to ensure that the work being carried out in the refuge by Luis, the handyman, was completed on time. So far little appeared to have changed, and on cold mornings there was no running water in the refuge, as some of the pipes were still exposed. At night they froze, and they remained frozen until warmed by the morning sun.

Not long after the sun rose each day, a herd of cows passed by the refuge, tended by two women and various dogs. The cows were put to graze in a meadow not far off, providing me each day with the same bucolic scene, a landscape of cows and of cowherds. And the same cows, the same dogs, and the same two women passed again in the evenings, returning to the village when it was time for milking.

By and large the routine of the village suited me. The coming and going of the cows was soothing, and much closer to my own preferred rhythm, at my age, than was the swinging pendulum of a clock. All the same, it fell to me to remind Luis that the pilgrim season would soon be upon us.

Queda mucho tiempo,” Luis insisted.

Plenty of time might be left, but plenty of work still remained to be done, and Luis was not nearly so regular as the cows. Some days he appeared and some days he didn’t. Cows, on the other hand, however regular in their habits, could hardly have been put to wiring a fuse box.

Pilar approached me one evening from behind the bar with her pitcher of vino joven.

Domingo te invita,” she announced.

Who was Domingo? Pilar indicated one of the much weathered farmers at the opposite end of the bar. Domingo had invited me to a drink and I could invite him to a drink as well, but not right away, on another occasion. The interchange of drinks was the currency of friendship here, but one needed to go about this in the correct fashion.

The ice had been broken. I wrote down Domingo’s name in my small notebook, and I was soon adding others. Next to invite me, were Justo and Dosito, the brothers of Domingo, and then Pepe, his nephew, who worked in the granite quarry. And after that there was Miguel, Manuel, Manolo, another Pepe, Antonio, José Manuel, Celestino...

It was Celestino who told me when to plant grelos. I wanted to plant grelos, greens identified in my dictionary as “turnip tops,” in order to make caldo gallego, a soup native to the region. A little ham or bacon, some beans, some potatoes, a handful of herbs, and finally, to give the soup its distinctive taste, one needed to add grelos.

“You want to plant grelos, Roberto?”

“Yes, why not?”

“You want to plant them now?”

“Yes, if this is the right season.”

“But it’s not the right season.”

“Then when is the right season?”

Con la luna nueva de agosto.

With the new moon of August.

Holy Week was in progress, and all of the images had been removed from the altar of the village church so that the interior could be thoroughly cleaned. I arrived to find Jesús in charge of a small army of village women armed with mops and I was given the task of filling their buckets using a hose pipe running from an adjacent house.

“So you are the Englishman who has been staying here,” one of the women remarked.

“No,” I corrected her. “I’m a Canadian and I live in Scotland.”

“But everyone says that you speak English,” she persisted.

Jesús came by the refuge again that evening with a gift of wine. This had become by now a regular occurrence, and this time I was ready for him. I presented him with a round of the local cheese which I had purchased from the grocery van.

¡Hombre!” he protested. “No. Es demasiado.”

It was nothing. This was Easter after all. And it was at this point that Luis, who planned to spend the Easter weekend hunting, appeared to tell me that all of the drains in the albergue were now connected to the municipal sewer. The new bathroom was thus ready to be used, and just in time for the expected influx of spring pilgrims.

Estupendo, Luis.

Normal, Roberto.

The season’s first pilgrims were beginning to arrive. Some days only one or two turned up, some days as many as a dozen. Four more days of walking would take them to Santiago, where, according to the present day lore of the Camino, their true pilgrimage would commence.

Once the pilgrims had been fed and the washing up had been completed, my time was once more my own. One night, after the exhausted pilgrims were safely tucked up in their bunks, I walked out through the village, reflecting on the truly improbable chain of events which had brought me to this place. The stars and a sliver of moon lit the gravel road beyond the last streetlight, and I continued on over the heath, feeling completely at peace both with myself and with my surroundings, for me a rare feeling indeed.

My dreams here had been unusually vivid, if not always pleasant. Just as the lack of streetlights showed off the night sky, so too, perhaps, a want of distraction and entertainment could bring one’s own night thoughts to the fore. And this, perhaps, was also the secret of the Camino.

El Camino nos desnuda.

The Camino strips us bare. Strips us of distinctions, of impediments, of excess baggage, and this seeming impoverishment could bring unexpected enrichment. Having been stripped of all that was not strictly necessary, or relevant, or fit for purpose, the pilgrim was led to discover a new way of getting about, of seeing, of being with others, of being in the world.

Spring had come to Galicia, and there were pilgrims enjoying themselves in the garden. Some were stretched out in the sun, some sat in the shade of the blossoming fruit trees. And the spring had also brought two new volunteers to take over at the refuge.

I helped the newcomers to settle in and showed them the ropes. As I would be leaving early on the following morning, I then went to call on Jesús, who lived in a small, low house across from the bar. He handed me a large tumbler of wine and set out some biscuits. From somewhere he had got hold of a cardboard carton, a carton meant for a dozen eggs, which he now began to fill.

It fell to me this time to protest.

Hombre, no. Es demasiado.”

He paid no attention. When the carton was full, he wrapped it with newspaper and then tied it with a cord. The eggs were nothing, his chickens could always lay more, but I must be careful, he warned, and carry the package with me onto the airplane so that the eggs would not be broken.

The village was still asleep the following morning when I slipped away from the refuge. A mist hung over the fields. The Bar Miraz, with its yellow post box on the wall and its Coca Cola sign above the door, would not be opening for several hours yet.

The time had come to retrace my journey: Friol, Lugo, Santiago, London, Edinburgh. Unlike on my outward journey, the route this time would be familiar.

Ostensibly, I departed Miraz in much the same manner as I had arrived, with a few bare necessities stuffed into a rucksack, but the truth was otherwise. I left that morning feeling considerably enriched, enriched beyond measure, by the simply but securely wrapped parcel which I carried by hand.

Robert Mullen lives in Scotland and spends several months each winter in Miraz, a small village in Galicia, in north-western Spain, running a pilgrim refuge on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. His accounts of the Camino, which he first walked in 2005, and of the village which has since become his second home, have appeared in magazines across Europe and are presently being chronicled in a weekly blog (http://camino.findhornpress.com.). You can find out more about his book at www.findhornpress.com


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